There’s a “Not In Kansas, anymore” at the very beginning of Lankum’s new take on boozy standard, ‘The Wild Rover’. The 10 minute-plus recording starts with a caterwauling note that hangs jaggedly in the air. It’s dissonant and unsettling, like a rumble from over the horizon or a banshee wailing on the wind.
This is Lankum announcing that whatever comes next isn’t going to be a jolly singalong.
“The way Irish culture is portrayed is often misrepresented,” says Ian Lynch, who sings and plays uilleann pipes with the Dublin group. “Okay, leprechauns are part of Irish folklore. But the music you hear coming out of shops… it’s not the whole thing. There’s a dark side. It’s always been there.”
Home and abroad Lankum have been heralded the future of Irish traditional playing. Yet they are the very opposite of the pedlars of Celtic kitsch some say have blighted the genre. The dark side of the tune is something they have explored with vivacity and earnestness through their short lifespan. And there’s a feeling that, with new album The Livelong Day, the quartet have recorded their master-piece.
What makes The Livelong Day special — one of the things that makes it special, at least — is the sense that it is rooted as much in the Ireland of today as in the Ireland of misty-eyed bards and people being sad around turf fires. This is folk brought urgently and angrily to life.
“While we were making this record, three of us were evicted. One of us had to move to Sligo. One of us squatted. All of that happened in the middle of the recording,” says Lynch. “It’s been a very emotional year and a half.”
He hopes he doesn’t come across as melodramatic. Rather, he is agreeing with my suggestion that The Livelong Day, released on London’s storied Rough Trade label, is one of the most forcefully contemporary albums you’ll hear in 2019. Forget the virtue signallers and placard-wavers populating Irish music.
If you want a sense what it is to scrape a living in Dublin in the 21st century, when accommodation is unattainable, the cost of living stratospheric, public transport a creaking bad joke at all our expense, then sit down with the Livelong Day. It’s all in there – mesmerising and unflinching.
“We were in a very unsure and scary place in a lot of ways,” says Lynch.
[But] that’s what everyone is experiencing. Eviction, homelessness, heartbreak. We’ve gone through it all. A crushing, apocalyptic-sounding album – it’s what comes out in this day and age.
Lankum are Lynch, his brother Daragh (guitar), Radie Peat (vocals, harmonium, accordion, concertina and whistle) and Cormac Mac Diarmada (fiddle). Peat and MacDiarmada were educated through Irish and played traditional music from childhood. The Lynches had a very different and more typical experience.
Growing up they were equally oblivious to and leery of Irish culture. Part of of what motivates Lankum is their desire to explore the complexity of attitudes, theirs’ and ours’, towards our heritage (the band changed their name from Lynched! in 2017 because of the previous name’s racist connotations in the American South).
“I got an “F” in pass Irish,” say Lynch, who gave up a job lecturing in folklore at UCD to play full-time with Lankum. “I didn’t even go in for my oral exam. My father would have pushed us to learn Irish – ‘it was the language that was stolen from us’.
"A lot of people were bad at Irish on purpose. To make a point. A few years later I began to reinterrogate the whole thing. I did a masters in Irish folklore. I really got into Irish because I had neglected it for so long.”
We have a complicated relationship with Irishness, he continues. There’s a that little bit of the head and heart that feels self-conscious or ashamed of traditional culture. Lankum’s debut album had been out a full year and completely ignored in Ireland when they were invited onto the BBC’s Later… With Jools Holland in 2015 . The moment they arrived home they noticed a difference. They had been acclaimed in London. They must be doing something right.
“It was only after the UK kicked in that Irish people started playing attention. The album had been out and we’d sent it to lots of people and nothing happened. It’s that baggage with Irish music. There was a sense of embarrassment about it.”